Landlady in Bangkok

Karen Swenson, Author Copper Canyon Press $12 (96p) ISBN 978-1-55659-067-2
So many poets have made the requisite sojourn abroad-and written of it-that the travel genre can seem a matter of convention, and often of pretention. Partly for that reason, it's exhilarating to come upon Swenson's (A Sense of Direction) third book, a 1993 National Poetry Series competition selection, which collects her poems about Southeast Asia. These aren't the romantic escapist imaginings of a Westerner fulfilling one stage of a personal or a professional itinerary. Rather, Swenson shows how a writer can be enriched, honestly, by what is ``alien.'' The poetry, organized in sections by country, is at times lushly descriptive, but more frequently fastens on the real than on what a visitor had envisioned: ``I wake/ and shake a roach, size of a half-smoked stogie,/ from my bag back to the jungle,'' is one jauntily brisk example. Swenson writes of her own experiences but also, in numerous persona poems, puts herself in the shoes of others-assessing with empathy yet no excess of mercy the lot of various ``real'' tourists and their illusions. Her imagery is vivacious, yet not too deferential to site or susceptible to the seductions of exotica. Swenson writes with a respectful curiosity that is not self-forgetful, neither vain nor too humble. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 05/30/1994
Release date: 06/01/1994
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